Is all architecture infrastructure?

Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station - Architecture as infrastructure

A rendering of the Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station, designed by The Miller Hull Partnership to treat the 70 million gallons of polluted storm water that currently flows into Seattle's Duwamish River.

As public debates about national priorities focus on “infrastructure,” definitions of the term will vary.

Should infrastructure be locked away behind a razor-wire fence? Or is it possible to design infrastructure as an accessible, and even enriching, part of a modern city’s urban fabric?

Architects Scott Wolf, FAIA, Anton Dekom, AIA, and Mark T. Johnson, AIA, have spent their careers trying to make the latter solution possible. In an hour-long session at AIA Conference on Architecture 2018 titled “Narrative Infrastructure: 1% Visible,” they encouraged architects to think about—and articulate to potential clients—how infrastructure can be pleasing and functional and contribute to communities in innumerable ways, simultaneously. Think Trajan’s triple-arched Proserpina aqueduct in Mérida, Spain (or any Roman aqueduct, for that matter). Think John and Washington Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge.

Dekom works with Wolf at Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle (which boasts, among other sites, the Ballard Locks—listed on the National Register of Historic Places). He says that he didn’t start his architecture career hoping to design infrastructure, but quickly came to see it as a niche that would allow him to do high-impact work. He sees his work on infrastructure projects throughout the Pacific Northwest as opportunities to build a more engaged public through design.

“As our cities are growing, it becomes harder and harder to get these facilities out of sight, out of mind,” he says. Dekom, Wolf, and Johnson are all working to shift how the public interacts with the structures that perform essential tasks for their communities, like cleaning water and generating power. Miller Hull is placing priority on conceptualizing projects as opportunities to enrich people’s experience of their public spaces.

One recent Miller Hull design, Seattle’s Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station, is slated to treat the 70 million gallons of polluted storm water that currently flows into the nearby Duwamish River during rainstorms. When the station is completed, passersby will see colored piping behind the building’s transparent glass walls mapping out the water’s path, and exterior lights will turn on when the station is in operation. Strategically placed signage will inform the public about what’s going on inside, and school groups will have designated space for environmental learning. During construction, security fencing will be draped with water-themed artwork from nearby Maple Elementary students, part of a curriculum on storm water and water pollution. Through strong placemaking efforts like these, Dekom and Wolf feel, infrastructure can transcend simple utility and become a powerful community asset.

“We’re trying to have people appreciate these infrastructure projects for the impact they can have on their communities,” Dekom says. “I think there’s a perception that infrastructure is kind of hidden away in the background of our lives, and we take it for granted a little bit. We’re really trying to flip the paradigm by bringing infrastructure to the forefront and highlighting the kind of asset that it can be for a community. There’s a phrase that we used a lot – ‘making the invisible visible.’”

“We’re trying to have people appreciate these infrastructure projects for the impact they can have on their communities.” - Anton Dekom, AIA

Another recent Miller Hull project that successfully accomplishes this goal is the West Campus Utility Plant, a chilled water and emergency power plant at the University of Washington that won the 2018 AIA Seattle Award and the AIA Washington Council Civic Design Award. The university envisioned the project as a gateway to the campus, and the concept that Miller Hull delivered was a transparent plan that would expose critical systems to public view by attracting them to the facility with sleek, modern design, afford windows into the processes within, and provide public-facing LCD screens offering information about the building and its purpose.

“[We wanted] to focus on how we could integrate it into the urban fabric and have it not be an eyesore, but actually be something that people seek out,” Dekom says.

In the future, Wolf, Dekom and Johnson hope that more infrastructure projects might follow the lead of structures like Copenhagen’s Amager Bakke Waste to Energy Plant, which treats about 400,000 metric tons of waste annually, while also providing a roof-wide artificial ski slope that’s open to the general public in the winter. Not only is the facility providing an important public service, but the city of Copenhagen is able to actively promote it as a destination for locals and tourists. Marrying public utility with recreation and tourism, Wolf, Dekom, and Johnson feel, is a way to elevate infrastructure and make it a more vital and indispensable piece of contemporary urban fabric – not just through its function, but through its potential for public impact, as well.

In a way, Dekom pointed out during the presentation, all architecture is infrastructure – after all, Le Corbusier called the house “a machine for living”. By helping people see wastewater treatment facilities and salt storage sheds and power plants as places with a story to tell, just like so many of the other structures that they interact with every day, Dekom hopes that architects can encourage more public engagement with the decision-making process around the design and construction of these types of facilities.

Wolf sees the sector of work that he and his colleagues focus on as “sustainable infrastructure,” and emphasizes that it tends to be an engineering-dominated niche. While engineers know how to make these facilities operate efficiently, “there hasn’t been much focus on the community integration and aesthetic components of the project,” he says.  

“For us, we think we can bring a lot of value at relatively minimal cost, in that a lot of the cost is loaded into the engineering portions of these projects,” he continues. “For what we would consider very little effort, we’re able to bring a high degree of value to owners and to communities.”

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

Image credits

Georgetown Wet Weather Treatment Station - Architecture as infrastructure

Rendering by The Miller Hull Partnership

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